The 2015 Atlanta Braves certainly left much to be desired with regard to their performance on the field. A 67-95 record was bad enough to garner the third overall selection in next year’s draft, but has left many to wonder how long it could be before the team is competitive again. Injuries, trades, and regression left the team with little to offer in the way of performance this season, but rather than focus on what the Braves did not accomplish this season, let’s instead focus instead on what they did.
The most important thing the Braves accomplished this year was rebuilding their farm system, which had become one of the least fruitful in the league. The process of rebuilding the farm system began 14 months ago when the Braves traded right fielder Jason Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for two pitchers, one of whom was Shelby Miller, who was traded at this year’s winter meetings for a very impressive haul. But we’ll touch on that in more detail later. Continuing their rebuilding efforts, the Braves made seemingly their entire major league roster available, dealing catcher Evan Gattis to Houston, and outfielder Justin Upton and closer Craig Kimbrel to San Diego, all in separate deals. In return, the Braves netted a total of 10 minor league prospects in addition to Cameron Maybin and the 41st selection in the 2015 draft. These trades were the beginning of the Braves momentous effort to restock the farm system, and despite the reduced value of both Heyward and Upton, as they were each set for free agency following the season, the Braves did just that.
The four major trades that occurred last offseason created several voids on the major league club. With two All-Star caliber outfielders and a power-hitting catcher being moved, the club was now left searching for answers on offense, and with the trade of Kimbrel, the Braves had bullpen issues to resolve. The Braves signed veterans Nick Markakis, Kelly Johnson, and A.J. Pierzynski in an attempt to replace some of the positional talent lost. To shore up the bullpen, the Braves signed former All-Star closers Jason Grilli and Jim Johnson. Each of these acquisitions served their purpose to some extent, with Pierzynski batting .300, Markakis batting .296, and Grilli saving 24 games before being injured prior to the All-Star break. Both Johnsons were traded in July in separate deals, with Kelly going to the New York Mets along with Juan Uribe in exchange for two minor league pitchers and Jim going to the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of a much larger trade involving three teams and 13 players that netted the Braves reliever Paco Rodriguez, third baseman Hector Olivera, minor league pitcher Zachary Bird, and the 34th overall selection in the 2016 draft. In addition to Jim Johnson, the Braves traded one of their most highly rated prospects in Jose Peraza as well as starting pitcher Alex Wood and reliever Luis Avilan. This move was met with a lot of skepticism, but the return could be considered a steal in the future if Olivera pans out and the 34th selection in next year’s draft nets the Braves yet another valuable prospect. The Braves also made a trade early in the season to acquire pitcher Bronson Arroyo, but he was hardly the prize of the trade, as Atlanta also received Diamondbacks pitching prospect Touki Toussaint, the team’s first selection in the 2014 draft. This trade was confusing to a lot of baseball officials, as the Braves essentially bought a team’s top prospect by taking on the salary of Arroyo and giving up utility infielder Phil Gosselin. Toussaint struggled this season, but scouts love his potential, and if he is able to gain better command of his offerings he could be a player to watch next season.
In addition to their mid-season trades, the Braves used the June draft to strengthen their prospect pipeline, selecting a high school pitcher named Kolby Allard with the 14th overall pick. In addition to Allard, the Braves drafted pitcher Mike Soroka and third baseman Austin Riley with their early round selections. These three prospects immediately slotted highly into the Braves prospect lists, but by season’s end the industry was raving about the Braves’ draft. Riley may have been the most impressive of all the selections, as he hit 12 home runs in just over 200 at-bats spread over two different levels. Allard shined during his limited work in the Gulf Cost League, striking out 12 batters in six innings, allowing only one baserunner. Soroka struck out over a batter per inning between two levels in 2015, showcasing the stuff that convinced the Braves to draft him with a late first round pick.
This winter, the Braves began the offseason by trading shortstop Andrelton Simmons to the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for pitchers Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis, two highly-regarded prospects who could find a spot in the Atlanta rotation in the near future. Giving up a young, controllable player like Simmons is risky, as players of his caliber who are under contract for five years are extremely valuable. But, if Newcomb and Ellis reach their respective potentials, the trade could be a huge win for the Braves, as a pitcher with Newcomb’s potential is rarely dealt. At 6’5″, 245 lbs., Newcomb has the size and strength that teams covet when evaluating pitchers. His propensity for walks to this point may be the only question mark in his evaluation, but if the Braves are able to iron out his control issues they could have a top-of-the-rotation starter waiting in the wings. Ellis also carries a great deal of potential, as the 6’5″ right-hander features a low 90’s fastball with late life and two developing off-speed pitches. Both are expected to fight for a spot in the Atlanta rotation as early as summer 2016.
At the winter meetings, it was reported that the Braves had fielded calls from over 20 teams with interest in right-handed pitcher Shelby Miller, who posted a 3.02 ERA in just over 200 innings in 2015. Miller’s recent success along with three remaining years of control enticed many teams, and a deal was eventually agreed upon with the Arizona Diamondbacks. In exchange for Miller and left-handed reliever Gabe Speier the Braves received outfielder Ender Inciarte and minor leaguers Aaron Blair and Dansby Swanson. This was quite a haul for the Braves, as Swanson was the first overall selection in the 2015 draft, Blair was Arizona’s third-ranked prospect, and Inciarte was coming off a 5.3 WAR season for the Diamondbacks. Swanson was a surprising inclusion for many, as he is considered a top-10 prospect in baseball and has drawn comparisons to Derek Jeter for his leadership and work ethic. Blair has an opportunity to pitch in Atlanta in 2016, as he finished last season in AAA Reno for the Diamondbacks. If Inciarte is kept by the Braves, which is uncertain due to all the trade inquiries the Braves have fielded on him since his acquisition, he could bat leadoff and play centerfield for them this season. Inciarte still has five years of team control remaining, and could be a solution to the Braves lack of outfield depth if they decide to keep him.
There is no doubt 2015 was a very busy year for the Atlanta Braves. Though the major league team was incompetent at times, the Braves made huge strides in rebuilding the depth of their farm system and creating a talent pool that could benefit them greatly as they prepare to move to their new stadium in Cobb County. In addition to adding young talent over the past year, the Braves have cleared future payroll obligations, giving themselves added financial flexibility with which to add players over the next few years. So, while this year was very difficult to watch and times, and may be again in 2016, the Braves future is bright, and much of the Braves’ success in the future could be a result of moves made in 2015. So just be patient Atlanta fans, because the next crop of young players is coming.